January 3, 2005
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It won't knock your eyes out — in fact you'll probably need binoculars to see it — but a new comet is glowing high up among the sparkling winter stars. Comet Machholz is the brightest in several years to appear high in the evening sky for observers in North America and Europe. Named for its discoverer, amateur astronomer Don Machholz of Colfax, California, it's barely visible to the naked eye if you get away from city light pollution and know exactly where to look.
However, a pair of binoculars will show the comet from practically anywhere at all. Even if you've never located anything in the sky before and don't know Polaris from Pluto, you can find the new comet for yourself and have a look. Here's how.
Go out after dinnertime on the next clear night, find a spot with no lights nearby, and look southeast. Glittering there will be the bright constellation Orion, as shown on the accompanying chart. High above Orion you'll notice the orange star Aldebaran. Even higher above Aldebaran is the little Pleiades star cluster, the size of your fingertip seen at arm's length. You should have no trouble spotting any of these.
The comet is moving night by night. On the accompanying chart, its position is marked for each evening in early January. Note the exact position of tonight's symbol with respect to Aldebaran and the Pleiades. In other words, memorize the shape of the triangle that the comet makes with Aldebaran and the Pleiades. Go outdoors, give your eyes a few minutes to adapt to the dark, and examine this spot with your binoculars.
There the comet will be: a dimly glowing ball of haze floating among the pinpoint stars, luminous gray with a touch of aquamarine green. It will probably display a brighter core and possibly, if your sky is dark enough, a hint of a tail. Make a special note to look on January 7th, when the comet will be right next to the Pleiades.
A few tips: For your eyes to become dark adapted you need to be in the dark for at least 5 or 10 minutes, preferably 20 or more. The bigger the front lenses of your binoculars are, the better. And, of course, the farther you are from urban lights the better. But even in the city, binoculars should show at least the comet's inner part if you can get to a shaded nook or a rooftop above the streetlights.
If you've got (or can borrow) a telescope, do try it out — after you've located the comet without it. Use the telescope's lowest magnification to get the widest field of view.
Like all comets, Machholz is a dirty iceberg that has fallen from the solar system's cold outer reaches into the warm inner region that we inhabit. Here the warmth of the Sun is strong enough to heat the comet's surface. The glow that you see is the huge, thin cloud of sunlit gas and dust evaporating from the relatively tiny iceberg at the center.
Comet Machholz is currently the closest significant object to Earth after the Moon. It will be at its best during the first half of January. Then bright moonlight will interfere with the view somewhat, from about January 15th to 27th. But even during and after this period, the comet will still be well placed in good view — though starting to fade as it moves farther from the Earth and Sun. It will remain visible in binoculars during February and in good amateur telescopes through March, April, and May.
More information about Comet Machholz, charts of its position through May, and the story of Don Machholz's discovery of it last August 27th are in the January 2005 issue of Sky & Telescope. See also the articles linked below.
Don Machholz has been hunting comets since 1975; this is his tenth discovery. Today, automated sky-search projects using robotic telescopes make an increasing percentage of comet discoveries, and as a result, many comets now get named with acronyms of projects such as LINEAR, NEAT, and ASAS. But this one showed that there's still room for a diligent amateur to get there first.
However, it's getting tough. Machholz made his last discovery in 1994, and he logged 1,458 hours of comet-searching time before he caught this one!
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